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Don't Call Me a "Strong, Black Woman"

Updated: Jul 28




For centuries, Black woman have been labeled as strong. In many ways, we have embraced this title, owning our strength and making it clear to the world that we can do anything. Yes, we are strong. We have had to be.


So many of us were raised in a culture where we had to figure things out on our own. We had to endure great deals of pain, alone. And so many of us have had to raise children and entire families in our own strength. The demands of life required strength. We wouldn't have survived without it. But... what happens when a group of people are deemed so strong they are made invincible? What happens when their needs, their pain, and their desires become belittled or ignored because well, "they can handle it."


I sat at the edge of my grandmothers bed, hearing the whispers of her weeping underneath covers. She covered her face to hide her tears, but the covers could not disguise her pain. I sat there, unsure of how to help, conflicted. I asked her, "what's wrong?", but the only words she had were, "I don't know. I just don't feel good." Hopeful that she would be able to fight through this, many of us urged her to get up, to eat, and drink water. She would argue, "but I just want to rest." We couldn't allow it. We needed her to be okay. Pushing her and trying to encourage her to keep going. To fight. We offered mild diagnoses, assuring her "you're okay, you just need to eat." The hospital gave that same energy. She went to the emergency room three days after not feeling well. Though she walked in frail and malnourished, after "many tests" she was sent home with some antibiotics and a note to try to eat more. It didn't help. Two days later she was taken to the hospital again only to find out she was COVID-19 positive and would be admitted into the hospital without access to visitors.


When I got the call, my soul left me. I understood that the voices, needs, and pain of Black women were disregarded; yet, I had not fully tuned into the voice, needs, and pain of my own grandmother. Regret and shame settled like heavy stones in my belly. I had perpetuated the practices of the very system I fought against. It was not because of deeply rooted hate or ignorance. It was because I could not grasp my grandmother's mortality. I had seen her have pain for as long as I had been alive; I knew her to be the "Strong Black Woman" who always made it through. On June 3, 2020 at 2:15am, my partner-in-crime, best friend, and grandmother had transitioned to a new world. All I could think about in the following days was, "I wish I advocated for her more. I wish I listened to her." While regrets are a common response to loss, this one was stained on my heart. Her story is not rare.


For centuries, Black women have been mystified into superheroes who can handle and take care of anything. They have become the carriers of the world's burdens, encouraged to embody this superhero stereotype, oftentimes at their own expense. Dr. Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombé refers to this as the superwoman schema, which has five elements: "feeling an obligation to present an image of strength, feeling an obligation to suppress emotions, resistance to being vulnerable, a drive to succeed despite limited resources, and feeling an obligation to help others (1)." Over time, this level of responsibility and pressure causes depletion and accumulated stress. In 2010, a study found that "black women between the ages of 49 and 55 were an estimated seven and a half years older, biologically, than their white counterparts. In other words, just as a house continually battered by storms will eventually list, sag, and crumble, the health of black people in America is corroded by the relentless assaults of racism."(2)


Here are just a few examples of what's wearing us down and even killing us:



The world has used our strength against us. They have taught us to be quiet about our pain and to feel ashamed to ask for help. They have taught us to feel inferior and yet, responsible for raising the next generation. They have taught us to not value ourselves, but rather place everyone else before us. And they have taught us to glorify the strength of Black women without fully seeing Black women in their fullness.


I AM TAKING A STAND. DO NOT CALL ME A "STRONG, BLACK WOMAN". I want to be seen for all that I am. I am gentle and firm. Fierce and tender. Angry and content. Joyful and hurt. Wise and learning. Thoughtful and selfish. And I deserve to be cared for. If I am unwell, I want tender and loving care. If I am trying to do life alone, step into my world and show me that you are there. And If I have no energy or none to share, advocate for me. Yes, I can be strong. AND I am also fragile. The world hurts me often and then ignores me. It mutes me, then gives me a list of tasks to finish. It pushes me then asks for a hug. I need your tenderness.


And I need radical self-care. Do not misinterpret my resilience as durability. Even when you can't see the wearing, I am hurting. And I need and deserve care. My grandmother needed and deserved care. BLACK WOMEN NEED AND DESERVE CARE.


My ancestors, especially my grandmother, have been speaking to me lately. And they have made it clear to me, "It's time to be free." It is not the job of Black women to save the world. It is our time to heal ourselves and be uplifted by our communities. To allow others to support and be present for us. To express our needs and embrace our desires. For radical self-care to be a normal part of our daily lives. It is time. If not for ourselves, for the many Black women who came before us who felt they had no choice. Who only knew how to be "Strong, Black Women".


Let us be Brilliant Black Women. Rested Black Women. Self-loving Black Women. Cared for Black Women. Protected Black Women. Honored Black Women. Free Black Women.


For myself, my grandmother has demanded it of me. I am her legacy and the legacy of the enslaved African women and healers who came before me. I am their chance for freedom.


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Written in honor of my dear grandmother Doris "Granny" Knight. May you finally rest in peace and freedom.


A photo of my lovely grandmother, pictured in the Bahamas. This was an experience where she truly felt free and joyful. May all of your days in the afterlife be this playful and liberating.


Sources

  1. Superwoman Schema: African American Women's Views on Stress, Strength, and Health by Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombé, PhD, RN, Assistant Professor

  2. Do US Black Women Experience Stress-Related Accelerated Biological Aging?: A Novel Theory and First Population-Based Test of Black-White Differences in Telomere Length by Geronimus, A. T., Hicken, M. T., Pearson, J. A., Seashols, S. J., Brown, K. L., & Cruz, T. D., Human nature

  3. Gender wage inequality: What we know and how we can fix it by Sarah Jane Glynn, Equitable Growth

  4. Breadwinning Mothers Continue To Be the U.S. Norm by Sarah Jane Glynn, Center for American Progress

  5. American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates 2018, Table S0201: Selected Population Profile in the United States (Black or African American alone) by U.S. Census Bureau

  6. American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates 2018, Table B11001B: Household Type (Including Living Alone) (Black or African American Alone) by U.S. Census Bureau

  7. Racial and ethnic disparities in maternal morbidity and mortality by Louis, Judette M. MD, MPH; Menard, M. Kathryn MD, MPH; Gee, Rebekah E. MD, MPH ,Obstetrics & Gynecology


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